Why this Veteran is Investing in Girls’ Education on Memorial Day
Christopher D. Kolenda
By educating and empowering girls in the developing world, we might eventually send fewer Americans into combat overseas.
Rocket attacks were relentless. Most exploded harmlessly into fields or against the nearby mountainside. Some wounded or killed Afghan civilians. On occasion, the 107mm rockets would strike the outpost. A few of my paratroopers had suffered light wounds. If the rocket attacks continued more casualties were inevitable.
The rockets were being launched from the inaccessible east side of the Kunar River, in Afghanistan’s rugged Saw valley. Ethnically Pashtun and Kohistani, the population eked out a living as subsistence farmers in the isolated stretch of northeastern Kunar Province.
In the summer of 2007 that area, situated along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was volatile. My unit had only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks and knew very little about Saw. Some Afghans said the villagers supported the enemy. Others were not certain. We figured that they must be Taliban.
An intrusive search of the village was the textbook response to the rockets. I was not convinced. Lieutenant Colonel Sher Mohammad, a Pashtun from western Afghanistan and the commander of the local Afghan troops, suggested that his unit coordinate a visit instead.
Returning that evening, he informed me that Americans and local militia had previously done night searches of houses in the village, with conduct deeply offending the locals. The rockets were retaliation.
“Did you learn anything else?” I asked.
Sher Mohammad related the rest of his encounter, but I stopped him when he mentioned children.
“They want education for their children,” he said. “Right now they have only a three-walled building. No roof. No supplies. Girls go in the morning and boys in the afternoon. Education is very important to them.”
We saw an opportunity to build a bridge with this community. My unit had been receiving donations of school supplies from American families. We collected three truckloads. Sher Mohammad returned to the village.
The next day, something unusual happened. The Saw Village elders walked fifteen miles to the outpost. They carried with them stacks of thank-you notes written by their children, using the notebooks and pens we sent them.
Touched by the huge impact of such simple gestures, we both decided to do more. As the relationship developed, I asked the humanitarian group, Central Asia Institute (CAI) to consider supporting a school in the village. In 2008, CAI completed Saw School, which became a catalyst for more across Naray district.
That day began a personal friendship with the Saw community that has continued for eight years. Their rocket attacks stopped.
The Saw elders understood all too well what more than a quarter-century of war and violence had cost. For many of those years school was suspended as fighting raged up and down the Kunar River Valley. Some boys went to school in extremist Pakistani madrassas and returned as fighters.
Saw village is a microcosm of a wider problem.
Militancy and terrorism are symptoms of bigger diseases. South-Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and portions of the Middle East have the lowest rates of female literacy in the world, and are normally near the bottom in gender equality. Such countries are consistently among the most corrupt and violent. The likelihood of slavery is high. They top the “fragile states” index.
Where ignorance, bigotry, misogyny, and predation are unchecked, violence and extremism soon follow.
U.S. forces are engaged in combat in many of these hotspots. Other places have a very high likelihood of spiraling. Our military plays a critical role in keeping terrorist groups at bay. But the diseases must be defeated, not suppressed.
The protection and empowerment of girls is one of the most cost-effective ways to address the disorders that perpetuate conflict.
Girls’ education is no panacea for world peace. Women join groups such as the FARC in Colombia and Islamic State. Cuba scores well on women’s literacy but is a fragile state.
But countries that educate, respect, and empower girls and women are far more likely to be on the right side of political stability, human rights, and responsible and accountable governance. Rwanda, for instance, has emerged from genocide into a stable, well-governed state. It is also ranked seventh out of 142 countries for gender equality.
The people of Saw, including the local Taliban, have paid a heavy price defending their community against Pakistani militants. Sadly, some attacks have succeeded. Extremists have murdered a teacher and headmaster. They partially destroyed the school with a bomb blast on February 6. The people of Saw are determined to rebuild.
The story is similar in many Afghan villages. Afghans have been fighting to keep their girls and boys in school. In 2001, under the Taliban, only 800,000 children were in school, nearly all of them boys. Today nearly nine million children are in school, over a third of them are girls. This is one of the greatest advances in education in modern history, and is the best hope for Afghanistan’s future.
As part of my Memorial Day observance, I donated to Central Asia Institute to help Saw Village rebuild the school. CAI’s schools are sustainable because they emphasize community ownership and sweat equity. (See why I am a returning donor.)
A better peace is the ultimate goal in any conflict. Accomplishing that involves much more than just guns and bombs.
This article is dedicated to my Paratroopers who were killed who were killed in that far away land serving America and helping to make that corner of the world a better and safer place: Major Thomas Bostick, Captain David Boris, Staff Sergeant Ryan Fritsche, Sergeant Adrian Hike, Sergeant Joshua Kirk, Specialist Jacob Lowell, and Private First Class Christopher Pfeifer. An earlier version of this article was published by the Central Asia Institute.
About the Author(s)
To expand on the discussion about the pros and cons of projects, the following sections are from Jake Tapper’s book, “The Outpost.” COL Spitzer was the 3 BCT commander of 1st Infantry Division that followed 173rd ABCT. LTC Markert was the Squadron commander of 6-4 CAV that replaced LTC Kolenda’s 1-91 CAV. 1LT Tucker was the Fire Support Officer in charge of development fund projects in the area.
<blockquote> Spitzer and Markert decided the money had to stop flying out the door. As Spitzer saw it, 1-91 Cav had initiated these projects without having any means of performing proper oversight or inspections—or any power at all, really, to hold a contractor accountable after the first payment was made. (Then , too, the undermanned 6-4 Cav was at a disadvantage in having less combat strength than 1-91 Cav, hence less ability to get out to the villages to check up on projects.) In any case, the new civil-affairs team at FOB Bostick believed that Tucker should cancel every project outright until the violence stopped.
Tucker pushed back against that notion; he remained convinced that the projects could used as important bargaining chips. He and Pecha did, however, cancel some projects, and for good reason. The contractors on Bar Mandigal secondary-road project, for example, were reportedly working for the Taliban: they also rubbed Tucker the wrong way, and besides that, they hadn’t done any work. Their total fee would have benn $407,197, of which $50,000 had already been paid out. Project canceled. Another contractor had been hired to build a pipe system in Chapo—north of Urmul and up the road toward Barg-e-Matal—to help irrigate the fields there. He had collected $17,000 out of $27, 552, but Tucker never saw or heard from him. Canceled. Same problem with the contractor in charge of the pipe project in Sudgul: $111,000 already paid out of $27,552, but no contact with Tucker. Canceled. A micro-hydroelectric plant in Sudgul: $35,000 paid out on a $67,560 contract. Canceled.
Many projects were far enough away, and in areas where security was sketchy, that Tucker simply had no direct knowledge of whether or not they were real. He hired a local man with a video camera to drive out to the Marwai secondary road--$118,692.24 paid, in full, for its construction—to document its existence. The man did that and was paid for his time, though Tucker never felt 100 percent sure that the video wasn’t of some other, already existing road.
The Americans had spent $19,000 on refurbishing the Kamdesh boys’ school, that money having been used to build chairs and desks for the students and to repair the building itself. But then one day Tucker heard that the Taliban had taken over the school and raised their signature white flag over it. So he canceled payment on the remaining $6,000 owed to Mohammed, the contractor.</blockquote>
What followed was the verbal exchange between 1LT Tucker and the contractor Mohammed complaining about the Taliban living in the school. The Hundred-Man shura talked the Taliban into leaving but Tucker imagined the head of the shura telling them, “The Americans are mad that your flag is up, and they want to cancel the project. Take it down so we can continue to get paid, and we’ll give you a slice of the pie.” The quoted section from the book then continues:
<blockquote>The Kamdesh girls’ school was a whole other box of frustrations. Out of a $25,200 commitment by the U.S., $9,200 had already been paid, but Tucker wasn’t sure that any girls in the region even went to school, given how dedicated the entire female population of Nuristan was to manual labor. The lieutenant sent his quality-control engineer, a local Afghan, to visit the project after receiving reports that the Taliban had blown up the building. The Afghan confirmed that there was a large hole in the roof. “Why are we repairing this if they’re never going to use it?” Tucker asked. Project canceled.
Besides canceling nine projects, Tucker also saw five completed while he was in charge. Thirteen others could charitably be considered, well, continual works-in-progress. A total of $1,233,159.66 had been paid out to contractors by the end of Tucker’s tour, but there was a big sum—left unpaid, cash allocated but not disbursed for terminated projects. This annoyed a lot of contractors and villagers. Tucker knew that with American money no longer coming in, some of them would little incentive to care whether or not the American soldiers were safe. Even worse, some would find work with the insurgency. Tucker tried to leave on good terms with everyone, but he walked away from some of the Nuristanis thinking that things in the valley would almost surely get worse before they got better.</blockquote>
Note that some of these contractor problems might have been resolved had the villagers done their own work as Mr. Kolenda suggests. But some of the work, such as roads and pipelines, may have been too difficult for locals. There also exists a problem in assuming that "nation-building or else" (build or get attacked) is a necessary part of COIN.
Also, in my earlier comment I inquired about the Switchback and other roads to and from COP Keating and OP Fritsche and Kamdesh not to question LTC Kolenda’s decisions at the time, but rather because we (our industry-government team, another contractor, and JSIL) used COP Keating and that road as part of a constructed UAS-support scenario involving HMMWVs coming down the hill on the Switchback road and encountering IEDs and ambushes. In another pattern of life scenario, we also had Taliban entering Kamdesh from the east on another road and I wondered if these roads were truly passable by HMMWVs and larger trucks as simulation and maps alone implied.
For the unfamiliar, COL (ret) Kolenda commanded 1-91 CAV as a LTC in Afghanistan from May 2007 to June 2008 and later returned as a senior advisor for Gen McChrystal. Also note that Central Asia Institute was the outfit founded by Greg Mortenson that experienced some controversy. One might surmise that an endorsement by Mr. Kolenda is a pretty good indication that some of that controversy may be unfounded.
If you are interested in a well-researched comprehensive book about Northeast Afghanistan's role in OEF, I highly recommend Jake Tapper's "The Outpost." Mr. Kolenda was a source for the book and his unit plays a major role in the lead up to the attack on COP Keating in October 2008 that killed eight and wounded many in the unit after LTC Kolenda's.
LTC Kolenda also had a very successful Hundred-Man Shura that managed to get locals from Kamdesh (up the mountain from COP Keating and near OP Fritsche that also was attacked) and other areas to reject the "bad HIG" (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's militia) influence. However, as his unit was preparing to depart the book makes it sound as if the enemy adapted and more foreign fighters and extremists were affecting the area. Even early on in an ambush near Saret Koleh, some ANA or those dressed like them attacked our forces. The tribal sectarianism that Kolenda describes is an example of historical disagreements that are hard for U.S. forces to alter no matter how long we stay. It likewise appears difficult to get Nuristanis and others to follow the central government when it bans trade in gems and the cutting of timber, thus leading to smuggling of both into Pakistan to make a living.
The book also describes that many Afghan felt a sense of entitlement to projects and money from Americans. Early on a pipeline project that bypassed one village inadvertently created bad blood, as did the building of a school meant for consolidated use by two communities (Kamu and Mirdesh) who each wanted separate schools built by their own folks. So I guess the "Build" aspect of COIN has its pluses and minuses. Later in the book, many projects originally planned for the area were canceled. Who knows if this led to the attack on COP Keating or whether it was a money issue, or decision not to reward the adapting enemy's greater aggression. Even as Kolenda's unit first arrived, his subordinates were threatened if they did not fund things like helicopter landing damage to their fields and other real and contrived monies promised by the prior unit.
There also were examples of SF and conventional unit discord when an SF unit whose leader was wounded subsequently planned a major operation called Operation Commando Vengeance later changed in name to Commando Justice. LTC Kolenda thought this would disrupt the gains made by his Hundred-Man Shura but the SF continued to insist the operation would go on. It was only after the BCT commander got BG Joe Votel to withdraw helicopter support for the operation that it was halted. General Votel now commands USSOCOM.
In addition, LTC Kolenda's time in country seemed a pretty good case for the A-10, but likewise other fighter jets (except coalition partners whose poor English nearly led to the friendly unit's coordinates becoming the target coordinates). During the attack on COP Keating, quite a few other types of jets and aircraft were stacked above the COP providing support for many hours. Army Apaches and Blackhawks also played key roles while his unit fought TICs. Makeshift Blackhawk LZs along the Landay-Sin River with steep terrain on both sides, and similar terrain at Wanat (another nearby battle shortly after Kolenda's unit departed) make a good case for retaining a helicopter for Future Vertical Lift medium rotorcraft because they more easily could fit in smaller LZs than a tilt rotor.
I'm uncertain where Saw Valley is relative the FOB Bostick and COP Keating and the Landay-Sin River. I'm also curious about the Switchback road leading from Kamdesh down to COP Keating. Was it or the road from Kamdesh to the east an alternative route to MSR California along the river? LTC Kolenda had to make the decision to end vehicle traffic along that route due to many accidents where the road gave way. Perhaps that makes a good case for smaller, narrower SF and infantry ultralight vehicles and ATVs that currently are being investigated/procured. But constrained to a road as the terrain around COP Keating dictated still would have made them vulnerable to IEDs and ambush without the armor protection of uparmored HMMWVs, M-ATVs that came to theater later, and future JLTVs.
Thanks for your article.